Who Is Aleksandr Lukashenko? Here’s What You Need to Know

He has touted ice hockey, vodka, saunas and tractor-driving as remedies for Covid. He sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner carrying a prominent dissident. He has made his generals salute his teenage son.

Dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, the mercurial leader at the center of the border conflict with Poland and Lithuania that is roiling Europe, has a long history of defying the West. In a region buffeted by decades of authoritarianism, he has proved on of the most brutally tenacious leaders in the former Soviet Union, a one-man state, abetted by a powerful and menacing security apparatus and by the Kremlin, his sometime ally.

In nearly three decades in power, Mr. Lukashenko, 67, the former director of a Soviet collective pig farm, has built a cult of personality as the “Batka” — or father — of the Belarusian people. He also made his landlocked country, bordered by Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, a reliable buffer between Russia and its twin rivals, the European Union and NATO.

But his longstanding pattern of rigging elections, silencing dissent and violently suppressing opponents has taken a toll. Mass protests erupted in August of last year after he declared a landslide victory in presidential elections that many viewed as fiction. The uprising tested his hold on power as never before.

Here’s what you need to know about Belarus’s leader.

Mr. Lukashenko rose to prominence in the early 1990s, casting himself as a populist folk hero against a corrupt, immoral and bullying elite. Armed with a rough rural accent, Mr. Lukashenko took the floor of the Belarus legislature in December 1993 and lambasted the “chaos” and “crooks” in the country.

His rise was swift, and he became the country’s first elected president less than a year later.

Mr. Lukashenko still casts himself as the defender of the underdog. But his government routinely harasses, jails and even tortures critics — some have disappeared, and others have gone into self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment — and also arrests journalists and quashes independent media.

Many view his son Nikolai, now 17, as his undeclared heir apparent.

In the summer of last year, the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history erupted after Mr. Lukashenko claimed that he had won more than 80 percent of the vote in presidential elections that many regarded as rigged. The government had ruled most of the leading potential challengers ineligible to run.

The claims of a landslide spurred widespread anger at a time when the country was being buffeted by spiraling Covid-19 infection rates and an economic crisis. One week after the Aug. 9 vote, tens of thousands of protesters — some estimates put the crowd at 200,000 — filled the center of the capital, Minsk. It was a robust show of defiance in a country of 9.5 million people. The protests were the most strenuous test yet of whether Mr. Lukashenko’s ruthless repression could keep him in power.

In the end, a violent police crackdown and the arrest and suppression of key opponents helped silence his critics, at least temporarily. More than 32,000 protesters were arrested and at least four died during the protests. But the events underlined the fragility of Belarus’s political system.

In a decades-long catalog of suppression, this has become a defining example of the lengths Mr. Lukashenko will go to to stamp out dissent: In May he sent a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair flight traveling through the country’s airspace and ordered the plane to land in the capital, Minsk. Then, Roman Protasevich, a prominent 26-year-old dissident journalist who was on board the flight, was seized.

The forced landing of the commercial flight drew international condemnation. The flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk using the ruse of a bomb threat, according to Western governments, which described it as an act of piracy. No bomb was found on board.

In a video released by the government, Mr. Protasevich later confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest,” but friends say the confession was made under duress.

The latest crisis on Poland’s border with Belarus erupted as it became increasingly apparent that Mr. Lukashenko had been orchestrating an influx of thousands of migrants to the European Union’s borders, as retaliation for the bloc’s sanctions against Belarus.

The flash point became Poland, an E.U. country where a right-wing, anti-immigrant government holds power. As thousands of migrants arrived and camped in the cold at the border, the E.U. has rallied around Poland. Western officials say that, among other things, Mr. Lukashenko is trying to sow European divisions by manufacturing a migrant crisis.

The continent is still reeling from the migrant crisis of 2015-16 when more than a million migrants from the Middle East and Africa arrived in Europe, spurring a massive humanitarian challenge and fanning the rise of far right parties railing against the E.U. and Islam.

In the latest crisis, Mr. Lukashenko has once again cast himself as the defender of Belarus’s interests and honor. But Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that his self-mythologizing was wearing thin.

While other European authoritarians had successfully cast themselves with compelling narratives — Vladimir V. Putin as the restorer of Soviet-era prestige in Russia; Hungary’s Viktor Orban as the defender of European Christianity; Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the incarnation of Turkey’s Ottoman era grandeur — Mr. Gressel said “Lukashenko has no such narrative.”

Elian Peltier in Brussels contributed reporting

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